With many men and women in the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion wrapping Tefillin, I thought why not give this Mitzvah a shot. There was one minor problem though, I did not own a set of Tefillin and I was not sure if I wanted invest in them without having ever experienced the practice of wrapping them on my arms before prayer. Luckily, a friend in the program brought two sets of them to Jerusalem for the year. He agreed to let me try them out and to even teach me how to put them on and the prayers I was required to say while wrapping.
At first I thought it was a really cool feeling, preparing to pray. The week that I was borrowing Steven’s Tefillin I arrived to services an extra five to ten minutes early to put them on. I really enjoyed the idea of needing to get ready to join our community in services.
Absolutely, there was a learning curve on putting them on the correct way.
Even by the end of the week, I needed to stop and double check that I had the boxes facing the right direction before I started to wrap straps down my arm. The other trick is getting the tension right. You are supposed to wrap them tight enough that once you take them off there are still marks on your arm, but you do not want to cut off circulation. After putting the Tefillin on my forehead, I needed to figure out how to wrap them around my hand. There are a variety of different ways that people choose to do this. The desired result is three times around your hand, and three times on your middle finger with the straps making the shape of the letter “Shin” on the back of your hand.
I took a lot of meaning from spending the time to wrap Tefillin before praying, this was especially true when we were reciting the V’Ahavta and we would read the section of the blessing that mentions the Commandment that is fulfilled by Tefillin.
It wasn’t an entirely positive experience though.
Taking the time to gather my Tzitzit during the V’Ahavta was also a lot more difficult to do. It was also tough for me to lift and hold the Torah when I was called up for Hagbah (the honor of raising the Torah for the community to see at the end of the Torah Service). Not only was that the first time I had ever lifted a Torah that way, and I was not really prepared for the weight, I also had the additional pain on my arm. Thankfully I didn’t drop it.
Not only that, but there were many times during services that my mind wandered from praying to the pain I was feeling in my arm. As I mentioned earlier, you want to wrap them tight enough to feel the Tefillin on your arm, but there were moments that I found myself flexing and squeezing my hand and forearm to keep the blood pumping.
Although I liked the idea of preparing to pray, there are other ways that I can do that without distracting myself later in the service. I am very glad that I took the opportunity to try this out, and I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t done it before. As it turns out, this was not something that was incredibly meaningful for me to do every day, but that doesn’t mean I’m telling anyone else that they shouldn’t give it a try. There is a good sized section of my HUC class this year, men and women, that have elected to fulfill this Mitzvah at our morning services. At this point though, I will not be making the investment into a set of my own. Maybe at another point in my life I will give it a try again. Who knows, 7 years ago nobody would have guessed that I would be in school to become a rabbi.